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The Great Debate Over the Origin of the Ice Cream Sundae

Drizzling chocolate sauce over ice cream and topping it with a cherry seems like such a simple, intuitive decision that it’s no wonder multiple places claim to be the first to do it. But who made the first true ice cream sundae, and who came up with that unique name? Those are questions that food aficionados have been wrestling with for more than a century.

Several cities claim to be the birthplace of the ice cream sundae, among them New Orleans, New York, Buffalo, and Cleveland. But the strongest claims fall to three much smaller locales—including two that have been at each other’s throats for years over the matter.

The earliest claim belongs to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, located 40 miles southeast of Green Bay, on the shores of Lake Michigan. On a summer Sunday in 1881, soda fountain owner Ed Berners, at the request of a vacationing customer, reportedly poured chocolate syrup over a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Berners said in later interviews that he didn’t think the concoction would taste good—which is understandable, since soda was the common accompaniment to ice cream at the time. Luckily for Berners, he was dead wrong.

After savoring the chocolate-laden concoction, he began serving it every Sunday thereafter for a nickel. He also mixed in other ingredients, like bananas, nuts, raspberry sauce, and puffed rice, cooking up creations with colorful names like the Jennie Flip and the Flora Dora. Because of the significance of the last day of the week, Berners called his chocolate and ice cream treat a “Sunday,” later changing the name to “sundae” at the suggestion of a customer.

Residents of Two Rivers, who today number around 2000, are fiercely proud of their contribution to America’s dessert menus. The town’s visitors center houses a working replica of Berners’s soda fountain, where you can stop in for your own Two Rivers sundae. There’s also a plaque and various references throughout the town naming it the “official” birthplace of the ice cream sundae.

A certain crunchy college town in upstate New York, though, begs to differ with that designation. Officials in Ithaca, New York claim that on Sunday, April 3, 1892, the Reverend John Scott of the local Unitarian Church dropped by the Platt & Colt Pharmacy after services to enjoy a bowl of ice cream with the shop’s owner, Chester Platt. Instead of the usual unadorned scoops of vanilla, Platt decided to add cherry syrup and a candied cherry to each serving of ice cream. Platt named his creation the “Cherry Sunday” in honor of the day and his most holy company. Realizing he had a hit on his hands, he advertised the dish in the local newspaper, and soon after introduced a chocolate and a strawberry Sunday. He eventually changed the name of his dish to “sundae” to avoid offending the good reverend and the church.

Folks in Ithaca believe their story trumps Two Rivers’ for one big reason: evidence. Several years ago, a pair of intrepid local high schoolers rooted around in the town archives and came up with a solid paper trail. This includes the 1892 newspaper advertisement (believed to have been placed the day after Platt first served his Cherry Sunday), a newspaper article about Platt’s Sundays, a letter from the shop’s clerk, and a store ledger proving Platt had all the ingredients necessary.

Game, set, match for Ithaca—right?

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Well, not quite. Two Rivers stands by its story, despite Ithaca’s seemingly foolproof case. Their argument: Just because they lack hard evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. With both sides firmly dug in, a civic (albeit good-humored) spat has developed between the towns. Each has bought an ad in the other’s newspaper stating its case. Officials have written letters back and forth over the years. Both towns’ websites tell their side while also taking shots at the other. Two Rivers even issued a cease-and-desist order to Ithaca regarding their sundae story.

Residents, meanwhile, are quick to sound off about their respective first-ness.

“Everybody knows Two Rivers invented it,” one resident told The New York Times back in 2006. “That’s why we’re all so fat here. We eat a lot of them.”

A few years ago, Ithaca’s mayor received more than 100 postcards from Two Rivers’ residents, including one from “The Ghost of Ed Berners.” Two Rivers also sent a DVD of citizens singing a sundae “fight song.” In response, Ithaca came up with its own song called "Sundae Love," a barbershop-style ballad set to the tune of "Moon River."

Two Rivers, always in denial
The story you compile won’t play.
Your sign maker, a truth faker
Without sundae proof, your claims melted away.

While Ithaca and Two Rivers continue to duke it out for sundae supremacy, a third town quietly makes its case. In 1890, the town of Evanston, Illinois passed a ban prohibiting ice cream sodas on Sunday. This “blue law” came about through the influence of the Methodist church, which wasn’t pleased with the crowds the local soda fountains drew on the Sabbath. The soda fountains and drug stores, in response, came up with a clever workaround: the “Sunday soda.” As Richard Lloyd Jones, a former newspaper editor who grew up in Evanston at the time, wrote:

“Some ingenious confectioners and drug store operators in ‘Heavenston,’ obeying the law, served ice cream with the syrup of your choice without the soda. Thereby complying with the law. They did not serve ice cream sodas. They served sodas without soda on Sunday. This sodaless soda was the Sunday soda.”

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Born out of necessity, the Sunday soda nevertheless underwent a name change so as not to further offend the church. Evanston’s ice cream sundae became a local hit and quickly spread across the country. Or so Evanstonians say. Ithaca, Jones writes, likely got the idea from a Northwestern student returning home to upstate New York, or from a Cornell student from Evanston.

The other origin stories from around the country are as colorful as they are numerous. They include a druggist named Sonntag (Swedish for “Sunday”), a broken soda machine, a pastor with a sweet tooth, and a demanding little girl with a craving for chocolate syrup.

According to Anne Cooper Funderburg, author of Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains, the name “sundae” almost certainly developed as a way to avoid offending the church. Beyond that, though, it’s difficult to say anything with certainty about the ice cream sundae’s origins. Part of the difficulty is in sorting through the various accounts. There’s also the question of what really makes a sundae? Is it the combination of ice cream, chocolate, and cherry? Or should there be chopped nuts, as well? And what about whipped cream?

Luckily, a definitive answer isn’t required to enjoy one.

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Food
How to Make Miles Davis’s Famous Chili Recipe
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Miles Davis, who was born on May 26, 1926, was one of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th century, and changed the course of jazz music more times in his life than some people change their sheets. He was also pretty handy in the kitchen.

In his autobiography, Miles, Davis wrote that in the early 1960s, “I had gotten into cooking. I just loved food and hated going out to restaurants all the time, so I taught myself how to cook by reading books and practicing, just like you do on an instrument. I could cook most of the great French dishes—because I really liked French cooking—and all the black American dishes. But my favorite was a chili dish I called Miles's South Side Chicago Chili Mack. I served it with spaghetti, grated cheese, and oyster crackers."

Davis didn’t divulge what was in the dish or how to make it, but in 2007, Best Life magazine got the recipe from his first wife, Frances, who Davis said made it better than he did.

MILES'S SOUTH SIDE CHICAGO CHILIK MACK (SERVES 6)

1/4 lb. suet (beef fat)
1 large onion
1 lb. ground beef
1/2 lb. ground veal
1/2 lb. ground pork
salt and pepper
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. cumin seed
2 cans kidney beans, drained
1 can beef consommé
1 drop red wine vinegar
3 lb. spaghetti
parmesan cheese
oyster crackers
Heineken beer

1. Melt suet in large heavy pot until liquid fat is about an inch high. Remove solid pieces of suet from pot and discard.
2. In same pot, sauté onion.
3. Combine meats in bowl; season with salt, pepper, garlic powder, chili powder, and cumin.
4. In another bowl, season kidney beans with salt and pepper.
5. Add meat to onions; sauté until brown.
6. Add kidney beans, consommé, and vinegar; simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally.
7. Add more seasonings to taste, if desired.
8. Cook spaghetti according to package directions, and then divide among six plates.
9. Spoon meat mixture over each plate of spaghetti.
10. Top with Parmesan and serve oyster crackers on the side.
11. Open a Heineken.

John Szwed’s biography of Davis, So What, mentions another chili that the trumpeter’s father taught him how to make. The book includes the ingredients, but no instructions, save for serving it over pasta. Like a jazz musician, you’ll have to improvise. 

bacon grease
3 large cloves of garlic
1 green, 1 red pepper
2 pounds ground lean chuck
2 teaspoons cumin
1/2 jar of mustard
1/2 shot glass of vinegar
2 teaspoons of chili powder
dashes of salt and pepper
pinto or kidney beans
1 can of tomatoes
1 can of beef broth

serve over linguine

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Live Smarter
How to Choose the Best Watermelon
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Buying a watermelon is an experience one can grow to resent. The 92 percent moisture content of Citrullus lanatus means you're basically buying a giant ball of water. On the plus side, they're delicious and packed with enough vitamin C and D to keep you from getting scurvy.

But how to select the best of the batch? Food blogger Emma Christensen over at kitchn recently offered some advice, and it involves a little weight-training. When you examine watermelons in the produce section of your local grocery, you want to look for the heaviest one for its size. The denser the fruit, the more juice it has. That's when it's at its most ripe.

Next, check the underside of the watermelon for the "splotch." That's the yellow patch the watermelon develops by resting on the ground. If it's a creamy yellow, it's also a good indicator of being ripe.

Finally, give the underside a little smack—not aggressive enough to draw attention from grocery workers, but enough so that you can determine whether the watermelon sounds hollow. If it does, that's good. If it sounds dull, like you're hitting a solid brick of material, it's overripe; put the watermelon down and slowly back away from it.

If you're not confident in your watermelon evaluation abilities, there's another option: Local farmers markets typically have only choice product available, so any watermelon you pick up is likely to be a winner. You can also ask the merchant to pick one out for you. Pay attention to what he's doing and then try to emulate it the next time you're forced to choose your own produce.

[h/t: kitchn]

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